The World Peace Foundation is honored to publish this essay by a researcher from Singapore, who asked to remain anonymous at this time.
On August 21, 2022, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced at the National Day Rally (NDR) that his government would repeal the controversial Section 377A of the Singaporean Penal Code, which had criminalised sex between two men. Lee stated that this was the “the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept [and] will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans”.[i] The decision to repeal the law, he continued, was a “political accommodation” between different “legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans”, namely the conservative religious groups in Singapore who are opposed to homosexuality and grassroots LGBT+ activists in Singapore.[ii]
The repeal is a significant step forward for LGBT+ community, but there is a still way to go.
What is Section 377A?
Section 377A of Singaporean law was created in1938 under the colonial Indian Penal Code. It explicitly forbade “any male… [from] any act of gross indecency with another male person.” The law was first introduced in as a means to punish Asian male sex workers who were accused of seducing European men.[iii] It remained on the books through independence and the state had a history of using its surveillance apparatuses to arrest and prosecute gay men up to the 1990s.[iv] Since 1998 however, the government’s general policy was that 377A would remain law, but would not be actively enforced.[v]
Despite being a colonial creation, Section 377A became associated with the ‘Asian’ and family values debate in Singapore. Advocacy for LGBT+ issues, including repeal of Section 377A, are framed in national media as part of ‘Western’ politics or culture wars, and is often depicted as a stark contrast to the “traditional family [which] should form the basic building block of society”.[vi] This is not only relevant for same-sex marriage but also adoption, as gay couples are barred participating in this “building block” from adopting children in Singapore. Religious groups in Singapore have seized upon this rhetoric; prior to the verdict, the Alliance of Pentecostal & Charismatic Churches of Singapore released a statement warning against any “normalisation of homosexuality” would lead to “aggressive and intolerant opposition [from LGBT+ activists]” that would “[push] us ever closer to the zero-sum identity politics that has crippled Western societies”.[vii]
Discussions about Singapore’s LGBT+ community in the national discourse are underpinned by the dissonance between Singapore’s international and local image. There are two sometimes contradictory images of Singapore that the Lee’s Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has tried to cultivate. First, is a moralistic society defined by the cultivation of a traditional conservative ‘Asian’ society and values. Second, is a more cosmopolitan side that tolerates difference to maintain Singapore as a key player in neoliberal globalization.[viii] The fact that 377A has lasted so long while still being “virtually unenforced” is indicative of this tension between the PAP trying to cultivate a business-friendly and cosmopolitan image internationally while also presenting themselves steward of ‘Asian family values’ locally. This dissonance is present in Lee’s NDR speech as he immediately followed the announcement of the repeal with reassurances that this would not lead to ““a drastic shift in societal norms across the board including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what is shown on free to air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public”. [ix]
What has changed?
Two main factors led to the repeal. First, Singapore has always recognised that to attract global talent, it must at least attempt to appear as a modern, cosmopolitan country. Prior to the repeal, the Lee’s administration has tried to reassure potential global talent that they will not be harassed by the government despite the existence of 377A.[x] Lee recognised this at the NDR, saying about the law that “in this global contest for talent, Singapore cannot afford to be creamed off, or left behind”. This was the natural evolution of the stance of his father Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore and widely regarded as the country’s founding father. Lee Kuan Yew believed that homosexuality would be decriminalised “if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world”, concluding that it is probably “half-true that homosexuals are creative… [as] there is some Biblical evidence of that and if we want creative people, then we’ve got to put up with their idiosyncrasies… so long as they don’t infect the heartland”.[xi] The PAP continues to claim that they want “a stable society with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to society”[self-italicised].[xii] Thus, immediately following the repeal of 377A, the PAP reassured its conservative base that the change would not affect its heteronormative policies.
The PAP was anxious to walk a tightrope between introducing more LGBT+ friendly policies in Singapore in order to boost its international competitiveness, while also protecting the state definition of family. In fact, Lee himself stated that one of the goals of the repeal was to “protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts”. In other words, the repeal allowed the PAP to take control of the issue away from the courts and insulate Singaporean laws on homosexuality and marriage from more legal challenges.
The second factor was local LGBT+ activists in Singapore, who made great strides in getting their message to resonate in a generally socially conservative public. The main strategy of Pink Dot, founded in 2009 and the most well-known of the groups, does not rely on traditional ‘rights-based’ approaches adopted by LGBT+ movements in the West. Instead they focused on co-opting government rhetoric around family and community, asserting “the freedom to love” and emphasising that gay Singaporeans, are just as entitled to “love, family and kinship” as their heterosexual counterparts.[xiii] This strategy allowed for their continued operation within the Singaporean context as it does not directly challenge the state’s preoccupation with family and community. It also gained more sympathy with the wider Singaporean public by presenting themselves as a local movement. The strategy appears to be working slowly; surveys have shown that Singaporeans, particularly the youth, are growing more accepting of same-sex relationships.[xiv] Through such advocacy, they were able to bring the topic of 377A into the national spotlight. In addition, the advent of online streaming services and social media has led to Singaporeans being increasingly exposed to media with positive portrayals of LGBT+ characters and issues. This is important in a country where state controls on traditional media and censorship are so tight it that recently gave the Disney movie Lightyear an N16 rating because it briefly featured a lesbian relationship.[xv]
What happens next?
Even after the repeal, the prospect of achieving marriage equality in Singapore also looks bleak. The PAP intends to amend the Constitution to explicitly state that only Parliament can define the institution of marriage. Such a move would somewhat appease the socially conservative religious elements in Singapore that have felt threatened by the repeal and are already mobilising their bases to call for marriage between only one man and one woman to be enshrined in the Constitution. Pink Dot has responded by saying that “any move by the government to introduce further legislation… that signal LGBT+ people as unequal citizens is disappointing”.[xvi]
This Constitutional amendment will undoubtedly pass, as the PAP has enjoyed an overwhelmingly majority in parliament since independence. It is also unlikely that this will meet any resistance from the main political opposition, the Workers’ Party, who stated that they will continue to focus on more “bread and butter” economic issues.[xvii] Lawrence Wong, who is slated to be next PM, has stated that the definition of marriage will not change under his watch if the PAP wins the next election, which they probably will.[xviii]
Changing the definition of marriage will have serious ramifications in policy, especially for the country’s public housing policy which houses over 80 percent of the population. The government’s heteronormative family-centric policies, which only allow married couples to apply for public housing before they are 35, have resulted in gay Singaporeans subsidising a widespread government program that actively discriminates against them.
While the repeal of
Section 377A is a positive step forward, the odds will be stacked against
Singapore’s LGBT+ community as they continue the struggle for greater equality.
The PAP is only willing to make move a majority of the Singaporean public
appears to accept it. While DPM Wong has stated that the repeal was about doing
“what is right” and not about political costs, it is important to note that
this year was the first time a majority Singaporeans surveyed on 377A did not
support retaining it. Although marriage
equality will not be achieved in Singapore anytime soon, it is likely that the
newer generations of Singaporeans could force the PAP to yield on ‘smaller’
issues like discrimination, media representation, and public education first.
Such efforts will be led by groups like Pink Dot, that are able to leverage
their understanding of the Singaporean context to creatively advocate of their
Dot has stated that the repeal is the “first step on a long road toward full
equality for LGBT+ people in Singapore”, and that they will continue to tackle
“areas of discrimination… at home, in schools, workplaces, and in housing and
health systems”. In a similar vein, activist and lawyer Remy Choo said
following the repeal that “tomorrow, the healing will begin, but the road to
equality will be a long one”.[xix]
Atkins, Gary L. Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore. Illustrated edition. Hong Kong : Chiang Mai, Thailand : London: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.
Baker, Jalelah Abu. “Repeal of 377A: Workers’ Party Recognises Right to Equal Treatment under Law; Respects Right of Different Groups to Discuss Positions.” CNA, August 22, 2022. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/repeal-377a-workers-party-recognises-rights-equal-treatment-under-law-respects-rights-different-groups-discuss-positions-2891646.
Bloomberg.com. “Children Banned From Watching Disney’s ‘Lightyear’ in Singapore Over Lesbian Kiss,” June 14, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-14/disney-s-lightyear-banned-from-childrens-viewing-in-singapore.
Choo, Daryl. “No Change to Marriage Definition ‘under My Watch’ as next PM If PAP Wins next GE: DPM Lawrence Wong.” TODAY, August 24, 2022. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/lawrence-wong-no-change-marriage-under-my-watch-1974641.
Chua, J. Y. “The Strange Career of Gross Indecency: Race, Sex, and Law in Colonial Singapore.” Law and History Review 38, no. 4 (November 2020): 699–735. https://doi.org/10.1017/S073824801900052X.
Dewey, Sin. “Singapore to Lift Gay Sex Ban, Amend Constitution to Prevent Marriage Equality.” South China Morning Post, August 21, 2022. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3189671/singapore-scrap-anti-gay-sex-law-amend-constitution-ban-marriage.
IPSOS. “Attitudes towards Same-Sex Relationships Shift towards Greater Inclusivity in Singapore.” IPSOS. Accessed August 24, 2022. https://www.ipsos.com/en-sg/attitudes-towards-same-sex-relationships-shift-towards-greater-inclusivity-singapore.
Lee, Hsien Loong. “National Day Rally 2022.” Text. Prime Minister’s Office Singapore. katherine_chen, August 23, 2022. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/National-Day-Rally-2022-English.
Lee, Vernon. “K Shanmugam on Section 377A: ‘Legislation Needs to Evolve.’” Yahoo News, March 3, 2022. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/k-shanmugam-section-377a-legislation-needs-to-evolve-085505629.html.
———. “Section 377A Repeal Will Lead to ‘Aggressive LGBT Activism’: Church Grouping.” Yahoo News, August 19, 2022. https://news.yahoo.com/section-377a-repeal-aggressive-lgbt-church-grouping-155748527.html.
Ng, Jun Sen. “377A Will Be around ‘for Some Time’, Will Not Inhibit How S’pore Attracts Tech Talent: PM Lee.” TODAY, June 26, 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/377a-will-be-around-some-time-will-not-inhibit-how-spore-attracts-tech-talent-pm-lee.
Ramdas, Kamalini. “Negotiating LGBTQ Rights in Singapore: The Margin as a Place of Refusal.” Urban Studies 58, no. 7 (May 1, 2021): 1448–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098020962936.
Tan, Kenneth Paul. “Gay Activism,
Religious Conservatism, and the Policing of Neoliberal Crises.” In Governing
Global-City Singapore, 94–116. Routledge, 2016.
[i] Lee, Hsien Loong. “National Day Rally 2022.” Text. Prime Minister’s Office Singapore. katherine_chen, August 23, 2022. https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/National-Day-Rally-2022-English.
[iii] Chua, J. Y. “The Strange Career of Gross Indecency: Race, Sex, and Law in Colonial Singapore.” Law and History Review 38, no. 4 (November 2020): 699–735. https://doi.org/10.1017/S073824801900052X.
[iv] Atkins, Gary L. Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore. Illustrated edition. Hong Kong : Chiang Mai, Thailand : London: Hong Kong University Press, 2012; 214
[vi]Lee Hsien Loong, 2022, op. cit
[vii]. Lee, Vernon. “Section 377A Repeal Will Lead to ‘Aggressive LGBT Activism’: Church Grouping.” Yahoo News, August 19, 2022. https://news.yahoo.com/section-377a-repeal-aggressive-lgbt-church-grouping-155748527.html.
[viii] Tan, Kenneth Paul. “Gay Activism, Religious Conservatism, and the Policing of Neoliberal Crises.” In Governing Global-City Singapore, 95. Routledge, 2016.
[ix] Lee Hsien Loong, 2022, op. cit
[x] Ng, Jun Sen. “377A Will Be around ‘for Some Time’, Will Not Inhibit How S’pore Attracts Tech Talent: PM Lee.” TODAY, June 26, 2019. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/377a-will-be-around-some-time-will-not-inhibit-how-spore-attracts-tech-talent-pm-lee.
[xi] Quoted in Atkins, op. cit.
[xii] Lee, Vernon. “K Shanmugam on Section 377A: ‘Legislation Needs to Evolve.’” Yahoo News, March 3, 2022. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/k-shanmugam-section-377a-legislation-needs-to-evolve-085505629.html.
[xiii] Ramdas, Kamalini. “Negotiating LGBTQ Rights in Singapore: The Margin as a Place of Refusal.” Urban Studies 58, no. 7 (May 1, 2021): 1448–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098020962936.
[xiv] IPSOS. “Attitudes towards Same-Sex Relationships Shift towards Greater Inclusivity in Singapore.” IPSOS. Accessed August 24, 2022. https://www.ipsos.com/en-sg/attitudes-towards-same-sex-relationships-shift-towards-greater-inclusivity-singapore.
[xv] Bloomberg.com. “Children Banned From Watching Disney’s ‘Lightyear’ in Singapore Over Lesbian Kiss,” June 14, 2022. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-14/disney-s-lightyear-banned-from-childrens-viewing-in-singapore.
[xvi] The Pink Dot statement was released on their official social media platforms and can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/pinkdotsg/photos/pcb.10160310760143304/10160310759863304/
[xvii] Baker, Jalelah Abu. “Repeal of 377A: Workers’ Party Recognises Right to Equal Treatment under Law; Respects Right of Different Groups to Discuss Positions.” CNA, August 22, 2022. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/repeal-377a-workers-party-recognises-rights-equal-treatment-under-law-respects-rights-different-groups-discuss-positions-2891646.
[xviii] Choo, Daryl. “No Change to Marriage Definition ‘under My Watch’ as next PM If PAP Wins next GE: DPM Lawrence Wong.” TODAY, August 24, 2022. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/lawrence-wong-no-change-marriage-under-my-watch-1974641.
[xix] Sin, Dewey. “Singapore to Lift Gay Sex Ban, Amend Constitution to Prevent Marriage Equality.” South China Morning Post, August 21, 2022. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3189671/singapore-scrap-anti-gay-sex-law-amend-constitution-ban-marriage.
Tagsabiy ahmed advocacy Africa African Union arms trade atrocities AU book review Bosnia conflict conflict data corruption Covid-19 elections Employee of the month Eritrea Ethiopia famine foreign policy gender genocide Global Arms Business human rights memorial intervention Iraq justice Libya mediation memorialization migration new wars peace political marketplace prison Saudi Arabia Somalia South Africa South Sudan Sudan Syria Tigray UK UN US Yemen